Mankind's Quest For the Perfect Shave

I HEARD about the momentous discovery of 300 unknown poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge just as I was sorting through 40 years of forgotten family snapshots.

London's Sunday Times reported that the newfound manuscripts by the author of ``The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'' include six versions of ``an elegy to his broken shaving pot.'' And here I am in a photo with my lathered face in the bathroom mirror, my shaving mug on the sink, my eyes peering down toward two sink-height boys in pajamas, who are shaving, too.

Now we know that Coleridge might have meant a good shave when he wrote that ``the happiness of life is made up of minute fractions.''

Mankind's quest for the perfect shave may be folly. But fractions of progress, believe me, are bliss.

Take the little-known ultimate shaving cream that I read was available at selected pharmacies such as the Waldorf-Astoria's in New York. I lightly mentioned this alleged wonder product during last year's holidays when asked for a gift suggestion by our daughter, who lathered up shortly after her older brothers in the snapshot. (Yes, tender hearts, I did give the children razors without blades).

Later I remembered that the one gift my father asked for - and one that I gave him Christmas after Christmas - was a cake of Williams shaving soap. This was after he let me paw thrillingly through his shaving kit, right at transition time from the straight razor - like that of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street - to the old-fashioned safety razor folding into its ivory handle. ``Be careful,'' he said.

My new shaving cream - it doesn't lather, it just lubricates the bristle - might have interested the perennial experimenter Benjamin Franklin. Long before Coleridge praised fractional happiness, Franklin said almost the same thing: ``Human felicity is produc'd not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.''

And this wise Founding Father specifically cited shaving. ``Thus, if you teach a poor young man to shave himself, and keep his razor in order, you may contribute more to the happiness of his life than in giving him a thousand guineas.''

It's hard to put a price on one's beard, but over the years I think I owe my shaving mentors, oh, maybe five guineas. I'm not counting the marine drill instructor in World War II boot camp who ordered that we shave every day, which I had never done before.

I dared to skip one morning, and did he know how to hurt a guy! At inspection, he wiped his sandpaper palm across my chin and said, ``Aha, for a minute I thought you hadn't shaved.''

All too soon, no one had to tell me to shave daily. I don't recall everyone who may have helped through the decades of single-edge blades, double-edge blades, cartridge blades, double-track blades, multiple-track blades (which I refuse to be a party to), disposable blades, electric shavers, soap-and-brush, shaving stick, cream that clogs the razor more, and cream that clogs the razor less.

I do recall the roommate who shaved while slowly showering. I tried it once, the hot moisture laying every whisker low and the extravagant rush of water keeping the razor immaculate. It was rapture, but conservation guilt set in. No shave was worth draining an aquifer.

Possibly, I restored the balance on a trip to Havana when the taps periodically went dry. Yes, you can shave with one cup of bottled water.

Before it was entirely too late, I fell into the hands of a makeup expert who never met a face he really liked. He was trying his best to improve several of us being filmed for a documentary. As he rubbed on the greasepaint, he asked about my shaving habits. Bad to switch between a blade and an electric shaver, he said. Bad to use hot water, which dulls the blade and abuses skin.

These may be old makeup persons' tales. But ever since, I've enjoyed shaving with cold water and ordinary bar soap (or an occasional Pear's from my Valentine). It does help if the blade is sharp.

Once in a while, I use my gift cream and hot water. It's one more of Franklin's little advantages, one more of Coleridge's minute fractions of happiness. Now I wish someone would discover Shelley's lost ode to an after-shave, preferably witch hazel.

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